Lion Hunt Relief, North Palace of king Ashurbanipal, 668- c. 631/30 BC
Gypsum
157.5 (height) x 127 (width) cm
Nineveh (modern Mosul, Iraq)

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The Assyrian capital of Nineveh was sacked and destroyed by the Babylonians and Medes in 612 BC. Its richly decorated buildings and palaces lay hidden, forgotten, and unknown for some 2,500 years until rediscovered in the nineteenth century. This series of stone wall reliefs showing the killing of lions in a ritual hunt represents a stunning high point in Assyrian artistic achievement. This civilization flourished between the rivers Tigris and Euphrates in ancient Mesopotamia. Ashurbanipal reigned over this empire, which although beset by numerous and bloody wars and revolts, at its height, stretched from Egypt to the Gulf from 668 to around 631 BC. Located on the acropolis mound at Nineveh (now within the suburbs of Mosul in modern day Iraq), the North Palace was, as was typical, built of brick with rich decoration, primarily of stone carved in low relief from local gypsum. Its rooms were decorated with these relief panels, which, in this case, offer an ambitious extended visual narrative of a royal ritual killing of lions. The monarch’s seemingly epic battle against the beasts demonstrates his power and dominance over the natural world, and the protection of his people. Finely carved and highly detailed, the king appears in royal robes and crown, at a larger scale to his attendants. In contrast to the humans, the lions appear far more naturalistic and were clearly based on direct observation by the artists. The sophisticated treatment of their musculature, wounds, and movement roots this scene firmly in the world of the real, while in actuality the complex and multi-layered message of the scene is entirely ideological, emphasising the power and authority of the king.

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